LUMBERTON — Local law enforcement leaders are reaching out to residents of Robeson and surrounding counties to assure them they are safe even as the hunt continues for four armed bank robbers.
A search area that spans much of western Columbus County and parts of neighboring Bladen and Robeson counties has been saturated with more than 150 local, state and federal law enforcement personnel, Robeson County Sheriff Ken Sealey said today.
“I think they (the public) are safe,” Sealey said. “Our goal is to protect our citizens, including the citizens of Bladen, Columbus and Brunswick counties.”
The hunt began Tuesday afternoon after four armed people staged a Hollywood-style robbery of the PNC Bank at 700 N Chestnut St. in Lumberton. Responding Lumberton police officers saw the robbers driving away in a gray Saturn vehicle and gave chase. The high-speed pursuit, which involved gunfire, ended in Columbus County when the Saturn crashed near a bridge on Silver Spoon Road. No police officers were injured.
The New Hanover County Sheriff’s Office joined the search efforts this morning. They will be working and searching alongside deputies from Robeson, Brunswick, Bladen, Columbus counties; agents from the federal Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco Firearms and Explosives, the State Bureau of Investigation and the FBI; officers from the Fayetteville Police Department and the Lumberton Police Department, which has taken lead on the case.
The Fayetteville Police Department has supplied officers to assist in the ground effort and three drones to assist in the air, Sealey said.
As 5 p.m. approached, a cluster of lawmen began entering the Allenton Volunteer Fire Department building, located on Old Whiteville Road, to attend a briefing, which was closed to everyone but law personnel.
“It’s been a long day,” Sealey said, “We’ve been continuing all day, we haven’t stopped since it (bank robbery) happened.”
People in the area should stay vigilant and call the Robeson County Sheriff’s Office if they see anything suspicious, Sealey said. The number is 910-671-3100.
Dozens of vehicles from state, federal and county agencies gathered Tuesday evening at Silver Spoon Road near Bill Hooks Road, where a temporary command station was established and a search began. Two helicopters, one each from the Brunswick County Sheriff’s Office and the state Highway Patrol, circled overhead as deputies from Robeson, Brunswick, Bladen and Columbus counties, the Lumberton Police Department’s SWAT team and canine units prepared to search the area.
Coty Ward, who lives less than a mile from Peacock and Whiteville roads, said he was welcomed by a fleet of law enforcement vehicles when he got home Tuesday.
“The state Highway Patrol, the Robeson, Brunswick, Bladen and Columbus County deputies set up a perimeter all down Bill Hooks Road to N.C. Highway 131 to Peacock and all down Silver Spoon,” he said.
Ward said he overheard someone on the radio that lawmen were looking for two men and two women.
“I sent my wife to her mother’s house,” Ward said. “Everyone in the community is on alert. I would hate to be them walking around.”
Coty’s wife, Chelsea, said she only had about 15 minutes to get her children’s clothes packed.
“Cops and a canine unit was all over my back yard. Forty yards into the woods, there is a field,” Chelsea Ward said. “One of the officers said they (suspects) are in your back yard, you need to go inside or you need to leave.”
Chelsea Ward said today her daughter goes to Columbus Charter School on Old Lumberton Road in Whiteville and the school was on on lockdown.
“I am a little afraid. They (the school) are very protective with our kids. I have no doubt that they will call us if something happens,” she said. “She’s probably safer there.”
Littlefield Middle School and East Robeson Primary School in Robeson County were locked down for a short time today as a precaution, said Tasha Oxendine, a Public Schools of Robeson County spokesperson. The lockdown at Columbus Charter was lifted at 2:15 p.m., according to Headmaster Steve Smith.
Ward wants the ordeal to be over.
“I just want them caught, they don’t need to be members of society,” Ward said. “I can’t say I am scared because I am not in the thick of it but I have a lot of friends and family, they may not have anywhere else to go.”
Reach Annick Joseph by calling 910-416-5165 or via email at [email protected] or Facebook Annick MultiMedia Journalist.